OMAHA, Neb. - After President Bush finished pitching his Social Security plan to thousands of voters gathered in a stadium here Friday, he stepped into his limousine to make a second run at selling the proposal.
This time, he had an audience of one.
Bush had invited Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, a moderate Nebraskan who says he is open to Bush's idea of adding private accounts to Social Security, to ride as his guest in the armored presidential car as it made its way from his campaign-style stop at the Qwest Center to the airport.
As the president's aides whisked Nelson to the motorcade for the kind of presidential face time politicians covet, Bush seized a rare chance - outside the media glare and the partisanship of Washington - to woo a crucial player.
The ego-boosting, image-raising summons for a sit-down with the man himself is just one of the powerful tools available to Bush in his uphill struggle to win support for his effort to transform Social Security. And as Bush prepares for the biggest domestic fight of his presidency, he is throwing all the weapons he has into the effort.
It is a considerable arsenal, and one that only a president could muster. Bush is staging an aggressive publicity effort using the machinery of the Republican National Committee, now under the direction of his re-election manager, Ken Mehlman, a Baltimore-area native who has vowed to use the same tools he used to re-elect the president.
He is taking advantage of a business coalition whose members promise to raise as much as $35 million to stage an advertising and lobbying blitz for Bush's plan.
Then there is the president himself, who knows that the fate of his Social Security plan rests largely on his effectiveness as salesman in chief.
Based on his opening salvo last week, Bush is going to strike from a number of angles.
During his State of the Union speech Wednesday, he tried to disarm his critics by putting "on the table" a number of proposals for making up the long-term Social Security funding gap.
This past week, he began going over the heads of lawmakers in Congress and straight to voters, hoping to tantalize younger workers with new details of his plan for personal retirement accounts while attempting to neutralize people older than age 55 - a group that votes in disproportionately high numbers - with assurances that the changes would not affect them.
"The Social Security system will not change in any way" for those born before 1950, Bush said yesterday in his weekly radio address. "We will make the system a better deal for younger workers" by creating voluntary personal accounts, he added.
Bush is singling out centrist Democrats, including those who, like Nelson, face re-election campaigns next year, and putting them in the national spotlight.
Nelson "is a man with whom I can work, a person who is willing to put partisanship aside to focus on what's right for America," Bush told his audience here Friday.
Perhaps most important, Bush is using the type of persuasion that only a president can manage, the kind of soft sell that comes in the back of the presidential limo or in a plush seat on Air Force One.
Nelson was treated to such an effort Friday as he rode with Bush in his limousine, bantering about football and bickering chummily over which nickname the president should use for the first-term senator (they settled on "Benator") before they turned to the prickly issue of Social Security.
Bush spent most of the ride explaining why he thought it was important to alert the public to the problems facing Social Security and to propose a remedy, Nelson said.
"I told him that I would be happy to look at his plan when he lays out his plan," Nelson said in an interview, "and that I'd try to play a constructive role."
Nelson, who sided with Bush on a number of his first-term agenda items, including tax cuts and the Medicare prescription drug measure, has said he would consider any Social Security proposal that did not cut benefits or deepen the deficit.
Last week, he was the only Senate Democrat not to sign a letter to Bush that criticized the president's proposal for private accounts. The group noted economists' estimates that switching to such accounts could cost as much as $2 trillion - a figure Bush's aides reject - and wrote that "shifting financial obligations of this magnitude to future generations is immoral, unacceptable, and unsustainable."
Administration officials acknowledge that Bush's plan for personal retirement accounts would not close Social Security's $3.7 trillion shortfall or delay its insolvency, which is projected for about 2042. Until the president outlines precisely how he would do that, Nelson said, he will not take a stand on Bush's plan.
"He started out with concepts, broad concepts, and now he's moved to some content," Nelson said. But "now what's needed is the calculus. I need to see the calculations of how this works."
His refusal to rule out Bush's plan might have been one of the reasons that Nelson found himself in a tete-a-tete with the president, enjoying what he called a "comfortable ride," along with Bush's chief political adviser Karl Rove and freshman Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry.
"It's protected against armor-piercing projectiles," Nelson said of Bush's limousine, "but I wasn't under attack." Instead, Bush staged a charm offensive, leaving threats, demands or bargaining attempts for another day.
"He approached it on a personal and personable basis, and that's the way he deals with you," Nelson said. "There was no arm-twisting. As a matter of fact, he didn't even say, 'I need you.'"
But there is little doubt that Bush will have to do such hard negotiating at some point. He and his top aides know that they need the support of Republicans and at least a few Democrats to win enactment of any Social Security plan.
When the time comes, Democrats such as Nelson will likely find themselves in a rough spot. Bush hinted as much during a stop to promote his Social Security plan in Little Rock, Ark.
"It used to be, people were afraid to talk about Social Security," he said. "Now, I think people should be afraid not to talk about Social Security and start coming up with some solutions."
Activists on both sides of the issue are drawing battle lines.
Pamela Owen stood outside the Qwest Center on Friday, the blue bandanna wrapped around her head matching a bright blue sign she held reading, "PLEASE DON'T GIVE IN, BEN!"
"We want to be showing Senator Nelson that he has the support to stand up against this," said Owen, a 56-year-old professor, as she huddled with a few hundred protesters at 10th Street and Capitol Avenue, hoping to be seen by the presidential motorcade.
Nelson "needs to realize that the sentiment in Nebraska is not in support of privatizing Social Security," she said.
Inside the arena, Tim Bayne, 47, who said Bush was "definitely on the right track" with his plan for personal retirement accounts, said he is confident that Nelson will eventually agree, especially as Bush continues to barnstorm the country highlighting the issue.
"Ben Nelson's a good man," said Bayne, a high school government teacher from Lincoln. "He'll make the right decision."
Nelson, a popular and easygoing former governor, is not easily rattled, and he has denied that Bush's visit put him on the hot seat.
"I'm not in a tough spot with the constituents. I think the people of Nebraska know that I'm going to, at the end of the day, do what's best," he said before Bush's visit. "I'm not going to feel any undue pressure" from the president.
Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican who plans to introduce his Social Security proposal soon, acknowledged that the subject is "politically risky" for Bush "and maybe others who support him."
Hagel expressed doubt that Congress could complete a Social Security overhaul this year, but he said Bush was right to embark on a campaign to educate people about the problem.
Hagel made his contribution to Bush's sales effort last week, declining his invitation to ride in the limousine so that the president could home in on Nelson alone.
"I thought it was better for the president and Senator Nelson to have some quiet time together," Hagel said. "Quality time."